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Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone: Problems and Prospects - Aryaman Bhatnagar
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Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone: Problems and Prospects

Aryaman Bhatnagar

Living in an era plagued by a nuclear threat and arms race, wherein nations continue to nurse the ambition of producing nuclear weapons or acquiring the means to do, nuclear disarmament is possibly the most vital issue in the field of global security.

There has been a global realization that nuclear disarmament is an important first step towards achieving general and complete disarmament at a later stage. A number of important steps have been taken towards achieving this end. However given the current international environment, the global non-proliferation regime faces challenges on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East and when progress towards nuclear disarmament appears to have stalled, some believe that traditional instruments of non-proliferation policies have lost their relevance.

In the light of the above, Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zones (NWFZ) seem to be one of the most promising disarmament mechanisms. They have been recognized by the international community as a “step by step” approach in the process of arms control and disarmament . They are regarded as an effective non-proliferation tool as they fence off one entire region from nuclear weapons. In doing so, they rectify a ‘loophole’ in the NPT which allows the deployment in non-nuclear weapon states of nuclear weapons controlled by the nuclear weapon states . In this sense, NWFZ stop one form of horizontal proliferation.

The rationale behind setting up NWFZ is the direct correlation between denuclearization and peace. All states seek nuclear weapons for their deterrent potential, often pursuing them because they fear that that their neighbours are developing such weapons. In the light of such concerns, many a time, countries refuse to sign global disarmament treaties; if the neighbour that concerns you the most has not joined, what do you gain by joining? The NWFZ play a significant role in acting as a possible solution for fixing such problems. This agreement, generally in the form of an international treaty prohibits the deployment, use, production, transfer and possession of nuclear weapons within a specified geographical region by all countries within that region. In addition to this, the treaty prohibits nuclear weapon states from deploying weapons in these areas and permits the IAEA to conduct regular inspections of the region’s nuclear activity. Such treaties act as restraining forces on countries of that region preventing them from building or acquiring a nuclear arsenal by removing the danger of other countries doing the same.

The idea of NWFZ was conceived with a view to prevent the emergence of new nuclear weapon states. As early as 1958, the Polish government, which feared the nuclearization of West Germany and wanted to prevent the deployment of Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory, put forward a proposal called the ‘Rapacki Plan’ for a NWFZ in Central Europe. In the political climate of the 1950s, the plan had no chance of becoming an international agreement. Nonetheless, several of its elements were later adopted as guidelines for the establishment of NWFZ and several such zones came up in different parts of the world in the subsequent years.

The first of such zones was established in Latin America in 1967 through the Treaty of Tlatelolco. All 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries are parties to this treaty (however, all countries became parties to this treaty over a period of 30 years), which bars nuclear material from the area except for peaceful purposes. Since then the regions adopting NWFZs have been expanding. Following the Treaty of Tlatelolco, a similar treaty was adopted for the South Pacific region in 1985 known as the Treaty of Rarotonga. This zone includes Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Western Samoa and prohibits the use of nuclear energy even for peaceful purposes. The treaty of Bangkok was signed next in 1995, whereby a NWFZ was established in Southeast Asia covering the seven members of the ASEAN, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos .

The Pelindaba Treaty was concluded in 1996 creating a NWFZ in Africa but has not yet come into force as it has not been ratified by the required number of states. Austria and Mongolia announced their non-nuclear posture in 1999 and 2000 respectively making them single state zones, while the fifth NWFZ was created in Central Asia covering the five former Soviet Central Asian republics- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan- in September 2006.

Certain uninhabited areas of the globe have also been formally denuclearised. They include the Antarctica under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty; Outer Space, the moon and other celestial bodies under the 1967 Outer Space treaty and the 1979 Moon agreement; and the seabed, the ocean floor and subsoil thereof under the 1971 Seabed Treaty .

Some experts have questioned the relevance and benefits of NWFZs. They believe that the role of NWFZs has been grossly exaggerated. However, NWFZs are only the means towards an ultimate aim; they are not the sole method to eliminate nuclear weapons. Moreover, experts claim that only the “easy” areas have been included within NWFZs, while areas such as Europe, North America, Northeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, which either include an existing Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) or border with them have not been included into NWFZs. Even in the so-called ‘easy’ areas, NWFZs have not been fully implemented, the case being Africa, where the treaty has still not come into force. Despite these limitations, the role of NWFZs towards disarmament and a general peace building process can not be minimised.

The objective of this paper is to trace the development of the idea of a NWFZ in the Middle East and to analyse the factors and elements which have stood in the path of the creation of such a zone despite the fact that enthusiasm and initiatives for a NWFZ have come from both sides- Israel and the Arab world.

The Evolution and Stages of a NWFZ Proposal in the Middle East

A NWFZ in the Middle East is considered to be an important step towards bringing about peace and stability in the region. The region has been devastated by tensions and hostility, even before the creation of Israel in 1948, and which have been accentuated over the years. Thus, it is indisputable that the introduction of nuclear weapons in this tense and unstable setting could add a new element of danger and fear into the already volatile configuration of the Arab-Israeli conflict and would, as such, be detrimental to both Arab and Israeli interests in the long run .

It is interesting to note that despite its desire to create an advanced nuclear weapons programme, opposition to a nuclear Israel, as much as support for a NWFZ in the Middle East, originates first from within Israel rather than from other state parties .

The development of the Dimona plant had aroused strong criticism and anger in the Arab world as well as domestic hostility towards the programme. Seven members of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) resigned following the Israeli Cabinet’s decision to endorse the idea of the Dimona reactor. In late 1961, two of these members set up the committee for the denuclearisation of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which called for the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East.

However, following intense internal debate on the issue, the Israeli government rejected the NWFZ proposal and opted for the policy of nuclear ambiguity that it maintains till date. The Israeli government declared that while there were no nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Israel would not be the first to introduce them, but as it was possible to destroy Israel by use of conventional weapons it needed to maintain some amount of deterrent for its own safety. Hence, it kept the door open for nuclear arms development till the conventional disarmament took place in the region.

The Realisation of how close Israel had come to using nuclear weapons in the 1973 Yom Kippur War increased the danger of nuclear weapon proliferation in the region with greater access of nations to nuclear technology and the rapid diffusion of such technology within the Middle East. These developments led Iran to propose to the UNGA in 1974 to consider the question of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East. This proposal was subsequently cosponsored by Egypt .

The proposal to establish such a zone was supported by most states of the region and the first resolution on the question was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9th December 1974. By the resolution, the UNGA commended the idea of establishing a NWFZ in the region and called upon all states to proclaim solemnly to refrain, on a reciprocal basis, from producing, testing, obtaining, acquiring or in any other way possessing nuclear weapons. It also called upon the states, which had already not done so, to accede to the NPT and place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards .

However, Israel (along with Burma) abstained from voting on the proposal. Israel’s stand was rooted in the nature of Israel’s nuclear policy. A vote against such a proposal would have drawn the world’s attention towards its unsafeguarded nuclear facilities, while a vote in favour would have dissipated Arab fears, thus affecting the psychological deterrent .

From 1974 onwards, the resolution on a NWFZ in the Middle East became a regular feature with minor changes in nuances in the UNGA. Israel declared that the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East was a desirable first step and it was in favour of attending regional conferences of all states to establish such a zone. However, at the same time it made no promises on the NPT .

After the 1974 resolution, the UNGA had been adopting resolutions since 1974. From 1979, following the Iranian revolution, Egypt started sponsoring the resolution alone. In fact from 1980 onwards, most of the resolutions on this question were adopted by consensus including all Arab states, Iran and Israel . Israel, which was in favour of a NWFZ, tabled its own resolution in 1980, which stated that it was imperative for the member nations of the region to have direct talks with each other and called upon each and every nation to participate in such talks . However, Israel dropped its own draft after a lack of support for the same.

In the background of the Israeli attacks on the Iraqi non-military nuclear facilities in 1981 and the Iraqi response to such attacks, Egypt moved a more procedural resolution whereby the UNSG would merely transmit the previous year’s resolution in the UNGA at the UN Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSD) II. In subsequent years, Egypt presented substantive resolutions that were similar in spirit and substance to the one approved by consensus in 1980.

As a response to the Israeli nuclear programme, Egypt was perhaps the only other regional state that considered developing nuclear weapons as early as the 1960s. However, its decision to sign the NPT in 1982 closed the option forever . In fact, Egypt has gone as far as taking unilateral steps towards arms control and considered the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979 as a way to curtail, if not eliminate, the Israeli Nuclear Arsenal. Even though this did not materialise Egypt signed the NPT and froze all domestic nuclear programmes .

Mubarak’s Initiative and After

Although, Egypt also participated in the arms race, which had intensified the 1980s Middle East politics, it did not give up its desire to bring about peace and stability in the region through the elimination of nuclear weapons and other WMD. It was for this reason that in April 1990, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expanded the Egyptian NWFZ proposal to include all weapons of mass destruction- nuclear, chemical and biological. He called upon all states to commit to this initiative and establish transparent and effective verification measures . Mubarak’s plan was expanded in a paper submitted by the Foreign Minister Amru Musa to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. It called upon regional states to endorse the zone in declarations to the UNSC and to state their intention to refrain from actions which would impede the establishment of the zone. Regional states were asked to declare their readiness not to: use Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), produce or acquire nuclear weapons; produce or acquire nuclear weapons material. Regional states were also asked to support a future role for the UN or other international organisations in verification of the Middle East arms agreements .

The Mubarak initiative was not met with great enthusiasm in the Arab world. Saddam Hussein led the opposition to the proposal when it was announced at the 1990 Baghdad Arab Summit. Saddam said the proposal was detrimental to Arab interests and diverted the Israeli efforts from nuclear weapons to other WMD .

There was widespread discontent in the Middle East against Iraq during the Gulf War. There was some degree of cooperation between Israel and the Arab members of the anti-Iraqi coalition, which provided impetus for the initiation of a peace process . On October 30, 1991, the Middle East Peace Conference opened in Madrid under the sponsorship of the US and USSR, wherein direct bilateral and multilateral talks between Israel and its neighbours took place for the first time . An important consequence of this conference was the establishment of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group. The UNSC resolution 687 which had terminated the Persian War in 1991, in the meanwhile, had adopted the idea of both a NWFZ and a WMDFZ in the Middle East.

By 1994, Egypt continuing on Mubarak’s initiative was able to obtain support from Saudi Arabia and Syria for the creation of WMDFZ in the Middle East. During the months preceding the 1995 April NPT Review and Extension Conference, the Arab League instructed a group of Arab Arms Control experts to draft a WMDFZ treaty text. The draft treaty said that a WMDFZ must incorporate Israel, Iran and all 22 members of the Arab League . The Israeli approach to Mubarak’s initiative was quite positive as it adopted the central elements of it. At the same time, Israel indicated that establishment of a WMDFZ in the region required the prior establishment of peace and the application of mutual verification measures .

This was reiterated in the text of the agreed Israeli-Jordanian negotiation agenda concluded in Washington in September 1993 and in the Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement of October 1994. Israel endorsed the transformation of the Middle East into a WMDFZ in the draft statement on arms control and regional security discussed at the ACRS meeting in Paris and at the December 1994 meeting at Tunis.

The ACRS talks had failed to achieve anything significant. Though, some moderate confidence building measures were agreed, substantial progress wasn’t achieved due to profound differences between the parties notably, Israel and Egypt, on the relationship among nuclear disarmament, general arms control and peace. Egypt wanted nuclear disarmament on the agenda early on while Israel insisted on discussing it only at a much later stage in the process, only once the parties had already agreed on a solid arms control measures and had established a lasting, reliable peace . Moreover, the refusal of Syria to participate as well as the absence of Iran, Iraq and Libya (which rejected the peace process) limited the ability of ACRS to consider regional security issues such as the NWFZ in the region in any great detail . Thus, the ACRS talks were suspended in 1995 with very little, if any, real accomplishments.

NPT Review and Extension Conference

Despite the repeated failed attempts to establish a NWFZ in the Middle East, the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference wanted to commence the negotiation on a NWFZ and WMDFZ in the Middle East. The Arab states were able to get the Middle East resolution adopted which called upon all states in the region to accede to the NPT. However, this was only a partial victory for Egypt as they had failed to pressurise Israel into denouncing its nuclear options and it had received only half-hearted support from its other Arab allies .

Since 1995, Djibouti, Oman and the UAE have joined the NPT, leaving Israel as the only country in the Middle East outside the NPT regime. At the first preparatory committee for the 2000 Review Conference in April 1997, four positive developments were noted: accession to the NPT of all countries except Israel; adoption of the UNGA Resolution on NWFZ/ME by consensus; widespread support of the resolution and the Arab readiness to commence negotiation on the establishment of such a zone.

The Arab States concluded that “All Arab states are complying with the provisions of the treaty as well as with the letter and spirit of the resolution, while Israel continues to defy those repeated calls by refusing to accede to the treaty and to place all its nuclear facilities under the IAEA safeguards. ”. A similar declaration was also made during the 1998 Prepcom, wherein Egypt also talked about the lack of progress on the implementation of the Middle East Resolution. In 1999, another Egypt sponsored resolution at the UNGA was adopted with consensus; the text of this resolution was identical to the ones which were proposed before.


The Difference in Approaches
The creation of NWFZ in the Middle East has been stalled because of a number of reasons.
One of the factors, among many other factors, for the delay in the establishment of the NWFZ in the Middle East has been the difference in the Egyptian and the Israeli approaches towards establishing such a zone. As a result of this difference in approach neither side has been able to reach a consensus on how to go about the establishment of a NWFZ.

The Egyptian draft resolutions do not elaborate a mechanism for such an establishment or even suggest that a formal agreement to create such an NWFZ should be negotiated and signed by the region’s states. Rather, they implied that the Middle East should simply comply with the stipulations of the announced zone. The Egyptian proposal also did not define the obligations that these states would be taking towards each other: instead it referred to their commitment towards the zone. Egypt, despite recognising the need for nuclear disarmament and arms control, and the fact that such issues can be facilitated by the resolution of the political problems in the region and vice-versa, but rejected the linkage between the two, arguing that arms control cannot wait for peace .

The Israeli proposal, in contrast, emphasised the need to negotiate the terms of such a zone through direct talks between the state parties. Israel’s focus on the negotiation mechanism may have resulted from the conviction that it should not surrender her deterrent effect of its nuclear potential unless there is an Arab acceptance of Israel’s existence in the region. Israel believed that such willingness would give some clarity regarding the true intentions of the Arab nations, which was an essential part of the process of building mutual confidence in the region.

Besides a difference in the approaches towards establishing an NWFZ in the region, a number of other factors have posed a problem to such a proposal. Such problems had their origin in the Israeli nuclear programme and its impact on the region which encouraged more countries to take a similar route.

Israel’s Nuclear Opacity and subsequent nuclear policy
The genesis for the need of a NWFZ in the Middle East lay in the development of the Israeli nuclear-weapons programme and their subsequent nuclear policy. Israel’s interest in establishing a national nuclear infrastructure, aimed at both security and energy, is almost as old as the state itself.

The nuclear option was sought by Israel as an existential deterrent- a hedge against the Arab threat to the survival of Israel either through the employment of the preponderant conventional capability or by obtaining the nuclear weapons first. Israel’s lack of territorial strategic depth made it difficult for it to absorb a conventional attack and respond effectively to a group of countries, most of which were hostile to the very existence of Israel. In a situation like this, the Israeli reason for amassing nuclear weaponry was aimed as a psychological deterrent which could cow the Arab nations with a vague sense of power which can be furthered by periodic rumours of a bomb project . It is for this reason that Israel preferred to maintain a policy of nuclear ambiguity or opacity, which was first enunciated in 1963 meeting between Shimon Peres and John F. Kennedy.

However, the Israeli nuclear stand, instead of eliminating the danger intensified the Arab fears and hostility. Egypt, under Gamel Abdel Nasser, was the first to respond to Israel’s efforts in the nuclear realm. Nasser’s regime initiated the efforts of creating a nuclear infrastructure and at the same time attempted to buy the services of foreign scientists . Similarly, other countries in the region viewed Israel nuclear programme as a major threat and balancing the Israeli nuclear capability had become an important desire in the Arab world. Thus, the Israeli nuclear opacity gave rise to fresh tensions in the region as it moved towards the possibility of nuclearisation.
Given the tense situation in the Middle East, wherein none of the countries had recognised Israel, they possessed conventional weapons capable of destroying Israel and were now building up their nuclear weaponry to counter that of Israel and Israel continued to produce nuclear weapons and maintain an ambiguous stand on its programme, the possibility of an NWFZ in the region was highly dim.

Israel and the NPT
The suspicions surrounding the nuclear programme were strengthened in 1968, when Israel refused to sign the NPT. One of the main reasons for not signing the NPT was the desire to continue the ambiguity surrounding its nuclear policy. The Israeli government did not see the point of removing the ambiguity surrounding their nuclear policy as it was a crucial part of Israel’s national security concept. If Israel had signed the NPT they would have had to place their nuclear facilities and give up their nuclear arms. They were in no hurry to do given the fact that it was surrounded by countries calling for its destruction.

Moreover, Israel was not comfortable with the IAEA safeguards mechanism considering it to be highly deficient. These verifications were confined only to declared facilities and allowed the development of a full nuclear fuel cycle and stock pile large quantities of plutonium. Israel held the view that given the sheer size of many Arab countries would be in a better position to hide large-scale forbidden nuclear facilities while disclosing only a few nuclear facilities.

The Israeli PM Golda Meir met the US president Lyndon Johnson to explain the reasons for not signing the treaty and why a policy of nuclear opacity would best serve the interests of Israel. Israel also pledged not to test nuclear weapons or publicly admit to possessing them. US eventually accepted the Israeli position thereby ending the American pressure on Israel to sign the NPT. Thus, while other countries were pressurised into signing the NPT, Israel with the backing of the American government was able to escape handing over its nuclear arsenal.

The non-signatory status of Israel accentuated the tensions in the region with regard to nuclear proliferation. The Arab nations, initially, were against signing the Treaty till Israel became Party to it as well. However, gradually members of the Arab world and Iran started signing and ratifying the Treaty with the hope that Israel would follow suit. Despite the initiative taken by the Arab world, and despite the fact that more and more countries in the region ratified the treaty, Israel refused to give up its nuclear programme and continued to expand the same.

Israel’s Begin Doctrine
Despite the progress in the direction of establishing a NWFZ and a consensus on this question by all countries in the UNGA post-1980, Israel bombed the Iraqi non-military nuclear facility resulting in complete destruction. The Osirak reactor had aroused suspicion regarding the Iraqi nuclear programme. It was widely believed that Iraq had purchased the reactor for producing nuclear weapons. This allegation was promoted by the fact that Saddam Hussein had purchased a 40 Megawatt reactor, which was unusually large and that too as a substitute for natural uranium/gas graphite power reactor it had originally requested from the French . Despite the fact that Iraq had signed the NPT in 1969 and its facilities were placed under the IAEA safeguards, its nuclear programme became subject to efforts of sabotage by the US and Israel, the latter eventually bombing it in 1981.

Israel tried to defend its actions by claiming that there were ample evidences to suggest that Iraq was willing and capable of producing nuclear weapons, its nuclear facilities were capable of producing plutonium and that the existing safeguards were insufficient and ineffective. In the light of such a “threat” Israel had no option but to safeguard its own interests. This brought about a refinement in Israel’s defence posture, which came to be known as the Begin Doctrine (after the Israeli PM Menachem Begin). This doctrine, which became an official Israeli policy following Israel’s air attack on Iraq, sought to block any attempt by adversaries to acquire nuclear weapons.

Despite the UN condemnation of the attacks, Saddam Hussein decided to take things into his own hands and called upon all peace loving nations to “assist the Arabs in one way or another to obtain the nuclear bomb in order to confront Israel’s existing bombs” .

The Arab hostility
As discussed above, the need for and nature of the Israeli nuclear policy stemmed from the political situation prevailing in the region. The fact that the all the countries refused to accept the existence of Israel was bound to increase the latter’s insecurity giving rise to its ambiguous nuclear stance and constantly expanding arsenal..

The Arab hostility played a major role in the subsequent worsening of the situation in the region as well. Israel believed that until and unless a lasting peace was not established in the region it would not abandon its nuclear programme. The refusal of the Arab nations to recognise Israel and initiate peace talks with her further diminished the possibility of changing Israel’s nuclear policy and thus creating a NWFZ in the zone.

The Arab response to the growing Israeli conventional and unconventional arms superiority in the Middle East was to start developing their own arsenal and nuclear programme. The development of the Egyptian nuclear programme has already been discussed before. Some Arab states undertook or accelerated programmes to develop or acquire WMD as well as delivery systems. By the end of the decade, Saddam Hussein was boasting about Iraq’s extensive ballistic missile forces and chemical weapon capabilities by declaring that if Israel attacked any Iraqi nuclear installations, he would destroy “half of Israel” with chemical weapons.

At the same time, Iran, Libya and Syria were expanding their chemical weapon capabilities and some of Israel’s adversaries were also pushing the development of biological weapons. Such developments were bound to accentuate the insecurities back in Israel and further strengthened its resolve to hold on to its nuclear arsenal.

Iraq’s Nuclear Programme
For almost a decade, Saddam Hussein had been developing his country’s nuclear programme and nursing the ambition of building up a nuclear arsenal to counter the nuclear might of Israel. Despite, constant denials by the Iraqi government, Israel and USA were convinced of the true Iraqi intentions. The suspicions were testified by Saddam Hussein’s position on the Mubarak initiative.

It is possible that the Iraqi opposition was rooted in the fact that it embarked not only on a multi-faceted nuclear weapons programme, but also after its invasion of Kuwait, on a crash programme to develop a single nuclear device by April 1991. The emerging WMD threat was demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf War when Israeli cities and sites in Saudi Arabia were attacked by Iraqi extended-range Scud missiles. Though, there was a massive air campaign during the Gulf War against Iraq, much of Iraq’s nuclear weapon infrastructure remained intact. Several nuclear installations had not been identified while some suffered only slight damage, allowing the Iraqis to hide and remove equipment .

However, the subsequent, highly intrusive inspections mandated by the Security Council and carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Action Team in cooperation with the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) exposed and destroyed vast amounts of nuclear equipment and materials. In the process, the inspections uncovered a long-standing and determined clandestine nuclear weapons program, despite Iraqi denials until 1995 that such a program existed. Following such revelations, most of Iraq’s pre-Gulf War nuclear facilities and equipment had been eliminated or converted to non-prescribed purposes.

But Iraq retained its nuclear cadres and its extensive knowledge and experience built up before the Gulf War. The defection and consequent revelations of General Hassan Kamel, then head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialisation, provided evidence of Iraq’s revived nuclear weapons programme.

Worsening Regional Security amidst Peace Talks
The early 1990s witnessed the first real efforts made by the Arab world and Israel to negotiate a peace deal with each other under the sponsorship of other countries. The Madrid Peace Conference, the subsequent ACRS talks and the Oslo Peace Accords had give rise to some optimistic feelings regarding peace in the region and the establishment of a NWFZ.

However, fresh evidence regarding the revival of the Iraqi nuclear programme, Iran’s threat of developing nuclear weapons, Israel’s continuation of its policy of nuclear ambiguity and failure of the peace process seemed to crush this hope.

Israel, despite showing repeated interest in arms control by signing the CTBT and CWC and by playing an active role in the negotiations for the CTBT, refused to give up on its nuclear programme. From the Israeli point of view, security conditions deteriorated rapidly both internally and regionally from 1995 to the end of 2001. During that period, as ballistic missile threat increased, Israel accelerated its development of active ballistic missile defences. Israel’s postulated threat was testified by Syrian tests of advanced 600 km scud-C-missiles, a system capable of striking Israeli sites from within Syria and possible with chemical and biological weapons as well. Iran also started developing Shahab missiles that would enable Iran to target Israel for the first time, in addition, to its stockpile of chemical weapons, substantial biological programme and efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Moreover, Israel believed that it continued to face missile threats from Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and possibly Iraq .

In addition to such threats, the failure of the Oslo Peace accords of 1993 created a deeply pessimistic mood among the Israeli public about peace with anyone. An effort to negotiate a peace accord between Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak stalled in 2000 and a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the temple mount in September ignited a new intifada killing 100s of Palestinians and Israeli. An increase in Palestinian terror and Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon, have led much of the Israeli public and leadership to lose confidence in the peace processes, further justifying their stance on the NPT and their nuclear policy.

The growing tensions on account of the Israeli nuclear policy lead Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim Mansour, director of the Center for Future Studies at Asiut University (Egypt) and Director-General of the Future of Nuclear Option in the Middle East Conference in Cairo in 1999, to state that “speeding up the establishment of a common Arab market, uniting all Arabs and starting joint Arab cooperation is one of the important and vital alternatives to producing Arab nuclear weapons to balance the scales of power, which are tipped in Israel’s favour”. It is interesting to note that the purpose of such a conference was to rid the Middle East of Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Iran’s Nuclear Policy and Israel’s Stand
In 2003, another draft of the UNSC Resolution on the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East was tabled and in 2004, Mohammed El-Baradei, head of the IAEA, visited Israel to push them into abandoning their nuclear programme in order to establish a NWFZ in the region. Baradei was able to get an agreement from the Israeli Government to meet with other Middle Eastern states in January 2005 to discuss issues related to the establishment of a NWFZ, but the meeting never took place without apparent US objectives to the Iranian nuclear programme as a result of which nothing substantive could be achieved towards achieving this end .

Before El-Baradei’s visit to Israel, they had released pictures of their nuclear plant in the Negev for the first time, on the basis of which many experts have suggested that Israel has about 150-200 nuclear warheads. Despite, the efforts of the IAEA Israel refused to give up its policy of nuclear ambiguity expressing fear and concern over the Iranian nuclear programme. Though, Iran an NPT signatory has claimed that it wants to develop its nuclear programme for civil purposes, USA and Israel accuse Iran of secretly attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

In 2003, the IAEA accused Iran of having hidden a Uranium enriching programme for 18 years and this seems to have strengthened the suspicions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. The matter was reported to the UNSC in 2005 and since then strict actions have been taken against Iran, forbidding countries from supplying to Iran, technology or equipment which would allow it to enrich Uranium. The UNSC however has pledged help to Iran to develop its nuclear gas plants if it abandons its enriching programme. Such offers have been generally rejected by Iran, which continues to claim that it has no intention of designing a nuclear weapon. In the light of Iran’s “alleged” nuclear weapons programme and Israel’s ambiguous stand on its nuclear programme the establishment for a NWFZ in the Middle East has become an urgent matter.


The almost three and a half decade long struggle to establish an NWFZ in the Middle East does not seem anywhere close to its logical conclusion. This is evident from the American and Israeli refusal to sign the Egyptian proposal for an NWFZ in the Middle East in 2007. The roadblocks to the establishment of such a zone have been created by the political and military situations in the region influenced by the policies of Israel, the Arab world and foreign actors.

Israel’s justification for its nuclear policy and programme stems out from its geographical location and its relations with its neighbours. Being surrounded by Arab states on all sides, each one hostile and antagonistic towards it at the time of its creation, Israel sought the nuclear option as a deterrent to possible Arab attacks and in the interest of national security. The policy of nuclear opacity followed by Israel was also influenced by this factor. However, over the years, relations with the Arab countries have improved, with only Iran and Syria having not established diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet, Israel continues to maintain its ambiguous stand on the existence of its nuclear weapons. This policy of opaque nuclear proliferation eliminates the possibility of establishing a transparent verification mechanism in the region, which is an important prerequisite for the establishment of an NWFZ.

It is important to note that Israel has always maintained that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region, reports of their threat to do so in 1973 and during the Gulf War not withstanding. Moreover, it has always been in favour of establishing an NWFZ in the region, arms control and general disarmament evident from the fact that it has already signed all international treaties barring the NPT. However, it believes, and rightly so, if a lasting peace is not established in the region which is brought about by direct talks between the countries, any arms control treaty or NWFZ would be impractical and futile. In the light of the hostile stance of Iran, Syria and various Arab organisations such as Hezbollah, Israel’s concerns for its own safety and a desire for nuclear weapons flow out of such a concern.

At the same time, the Israeli nuclear posture is not without its pitfalls. The nuclear ‘deterrent’ did not deter but instead stimulated and intensified the conventional arms race. Israel’s policy increased Arab fears and suspicions and the urge to accelerate the development of their nuclear programme to catch up with Israel . For instance, the Iranian Deputy President Ayatollah Mohajerani told the ‘Tehran Times’ that if the Zionist regime has the right to possess nuclear weapons, then all Muslim countries have this right as well. Given the recent developments in the Iranian nuclear programme, it appears that the subsequent Iranian Governments decided to follow this policy as well. Moreover, it is very interesting to note that when conscious efforts were being made to establish peace in the region and to initiate arms control such as the Madrid Peace Conference and the subsequent ACRS talks countries like Iran and Iraq stayed away and never gave up their nuclear programme. Both Iran and Iraq have signed the NPT but both have concealed aspects of their nuclear programme from the IAEA, which has lead to suspicions regarding their nuclear programme and subsequent sanctions.

Thus a vicious cycle has been created wherein Israel’s nuclear policy to counter Arab aggression, justifies the Arab desire for nuclear arsenal, which in turn gives more reason to Israel to hold on to its nuclear weapons.

The external actors namely the US have a major role in creating the current situation in the Middle East. The US has double standards about nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament when it comes to Israel. While, it has been highly critical of countries which have sought and tested nuclear weapons such as North Korea and called for strict actions against Iran, whom they have accused of pursuing nuclear weapons; it has turned a blind eye to the Israeli ‘bomb in the basement.’ The US acceptance of the Israeli refusal to sign the NPT has had a detrimental impact on the peace process and the establishment of an NWFZ in the region as no US pressure has given some degree of legitimacy to the Israeli nuclear programme. This has naturally not gone down well with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.

The failure of the IAEA safeguards has been another responsible factor for the perpetuation of a nuclear threat in the Middle East. The IAEA was unable to detect the clandestine Iraqi nuclear weapons programme and later the Iranian uranium enrichment programme. The limited scope of their safeguards which can not detect undeclared processing plants or nuclear activities has been one major reason why Israel has been disenchanted with the NPT regime. Israel holds that a disarmament or declaration of its nuclear policy in order to create an NWFZ in the Middle East would ultimately be dangerous for their security given the past record of the IAEA inspections.

In the light of the above arguments, the establishment of the NWFZ in the Middle East involves two difficult yet interrelated tasks: rolling back the Israeli nuclear-weapons programme and freezing the non-nuclear status of the other regional actors.

A dramatic alteration of Israel’s position regarding the NPT and making the Middle East a NWFZ can not happen overnight. Israel will continue to hold its nuclear weapons till it is assured that the other states in the region are willing to accommodate it politically and the Arab ‘threat’ will not cease till there is more clarity on the Israeli nuclear programme.

As the decision of Israel to go nuclear was influenced by the protracted state of war in the region, any decision to move in the opposite direction-denuclearisation-has to be tied to the Middle East peace process and its consolidation. Israel has repeatedly stated over the years that until and unless there a lasting peace is established in the region it will not even consider the possibility of changing its stand on it nuclear policy. This peace process will have to involve all countries in the region and without this universal participation; there is no possibility of a peace agreement being signed.

The role of the international community would also have to be altered in order to bring about an NWFZ in the Middle East. It would have to take a more balanced approach towards the situation in order to bring about a lasting peace. It is the US which should play a more proactive role by putting pressure on Israel to disarm and at the same time engage Iran in peace initiatives with Israel. The role of the IAEA should also be enhanced in the region but with greater ‘teeth’ given its past failures in the Iraqi and the Iranian programmes. It is only when these mechanisms are reformed and strengthened can the international community hope to have some chance of Israel signing the NPT. At the same time, the international community, in light of the allegations that North Korea is assisting the development of the Syrian nuclear-weapons programme, should ensure that no transfer of nuclear weapons or technology takes place in the region.

Irrespective of the role the international community may play in the Middle East, the importance of the peace process initiated by Middle East countries for the denuclearisation of the region can not be ignored. The possibility for a peace agreement to materialise overnight is unlikely and nor should there be an attempt to rush the process in order to establish an NWFZ; as it would be a long gradual process which would take some years to achieve fruition. The process has already made some progress with the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Agreement of 1979 and the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Agreement of 1994. (Except Israel) the ratification of the NPT by all countries in the Middle East, the removal of Saddam Hussein and new the Iraqi dependence on USA, the non-inclination of countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan towards the nuclear programme and the recent peace initiatives between Israel and Hamas, Syria and Hezbollah provide the biggest possibility for the establishment of a lasting peace in the Middle East, perhaps for the first time in its history. It is only the Israeli nuclear policy and subsequent Iranian response or vice versa, which seem to be the only obstacle in the realisation of a non-nuclear Middle East.
saudamini: i personally feel that this piece reflects great understandings on the issue.